Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

by Peter Brown

Hardcover, 2012



Call number



Princeton University Press (2012), Edition: First Edition, 792 pages


Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost scholar of late antiquity. Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven. Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity's growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member languagehat
This learned and well-written book totally transformed my understanding of both the later Roman Empire and the early centuries of Christianity. To take one example, I knew Carthage was an important city, but I had no idea how important; it was essentially the Rome of North Africa, its hinterland
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was the source of Rome's grain supply after the grain of Egypt started going to Constantinople, and its loss to the Vandals was one of the biggest blows to the Empire in its slow collapse. As for the church, Brown brings to life personalities like Augustine, Jerome, and Pelagius and shows how their ideas interacted with the people and culture around them and with the situation of the Empire at the time. Anyone with even a slight interest in the period and topic should read it.
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LibraryThing member deusvitae
An excellent, magisterial investigation into the history of Latin Western Christianity from 350-550 through a focus on material wealth, its handling, and its influence.

The author demonstrates well how this time period is crucial to explain the shifts that take place between "ancient" and "medieval"
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Christianity. He uses modern research, recently discovered texts, and archaeological evidence to question the prevailing narratives about the rise of prominence of Christianity in the Latin West and presents a more complex, nuanced, and ultimately more contextual and feasible explanation of that rise.

The author analyzes both pagan and Christian views of wealth in late Roman antiquity, describes the major historical events immediately before the mid-fourth century, and then begins his analysis of the role of wealth as it impacted many of the disputations and personalities of Western Christendom from 350-550, including Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Pelagius, Paulinus of Nola, Salvian, and Gregory of Tours.

The author convincingly demonstrates the process by which wealth eventually moved toward the church as the Roman empire disintegrated and how changes in the place of wealth and conceptions of giving in terms of penance and to the poor were major forces in the shift from "ancient" to "medieval" Christianity.

The character studies of Ambrose and Augustine (as well as the rest of the major characters) are of excellent quality and quite instructive, firmly contextualizing the men not only as theologians but as full-fledged members of the late Roman world. This work is useful since it shows the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the major theological disputes regarding Augustinianism vs. Pelagianism, Catholics vs. Donatists, and even the late phase of the Arians vs. Trinitarians.

This is an excellent work of history and very worthwhile for anyone with an interest in the history of late antiquity and/or the development of Christianity and Christian doctrine.

**--galley received as early review edition
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LibraryThing member le.vert.galant
Working with what seems like a fairly prosaic theme, Peter Brown has written a tremendous history that suggests that the relationship of the Church in late antiquity to wealth and the wealthy is a key driver of the establishment of Christianity in the West. By quoting extensively from major
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intellectual figures of the day such as Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and others, creates a picture of a society whose ideas have as rich a subtlety and complexity as those of any age. I constantly found myself turning the footnotes to ask myself, "how could he know that?"

Brown is always aware that he is dealing with writers who lived, not with dry texts. As he says of one of his sources, "Salvian was a vivid person with his own, idiosyncratic take on the problems of his day." It is this ability to get at the person behind the text, however dimly observed, that makes Brown's book so compelling. This is not the Christianity of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, which paints a picture of religious intolerance, but rather a religion whose complex relationship with wealth positioned it to survive the economic collapse of the Empire.
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LibraryThing member jsburbidge
This is a thorough and enlightening study of the development of the Western Church from the Fourth through the Sixth centuries seen through the filter of how it dealt with the rich and with the idea of wealth in general. The major focus is on Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, but a great deal of
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attention is also given to more of the "background", especially in Gaul and Spain.

This is both readable and informative and deserves to become a standard resource on the period.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
Magisterial, well-written, but perhaps a little too detailed for the common reader. Brown seems to be making up a field of study as much as actually studying a field, which is of course very impressive, but I also found myself wondering what exactly he was looking at--there are lots of texts and
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ideas, and a few biographies and lives, and perhaps not quite enough broader social history for my taste (I mean not quite enough proportionally: there's plenty in there, and it's very good).

But holy hell is this book too long.
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Original language


Original publication date

2012 (1e édition originale américaine, Princeton University Press)
2016-09-14 (1e traduction et édition française, Histoire, Les Belles lettres)

Physical description

792 p.; 9.3 inches


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